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William Guthrie

Category Articles
Date March 27, 2003

“I here declare, I think myself called by the Lord to the work of the ministry, and did forsake my nearest relations in the world, and gave up myself to the service of the gospel in this place, having received a unanimous call from this parish, and being tried and ordained by the Presbytery; and I bless the Lord He has given me some success, and a seal of my ministry upon the souls and consciences of not a few that are gone to heaven, and of some that are yet in the way to it”.

by Matthew Vogan

William Guthrie, author of ‘The Christian’s Great Interest’ (Banner of Truth), was born at Pitforthy, Angus, in 1620. His brothers Robert, Alexander and John became faithful ministers of the gospel too. Brilliant academically, it was not till he entered University that he came to a vital saving knowledge of Christ. His cousin, James Guthrie, helped him make progress in the way of godliness. James was a professor in the New College of St Andrews, later minister of Stirling and finally one of the first to be executed in the persecution that followed the Restoration of King Charles II. William Guthrie was taught theology by the keen mind of the devout Samuel Rutherford. That he might not be entangled in secular matters, William resigned his estate at Pitforthy in favour of a younger brother who was not yet committed to the ministry. In August 1642 he was licensed to preach the gospel and after two years he received a call from the people of the newly erected parish of Fenwick which is for ever connected with his name. He was ordained minister in November 1644.

A NOTABLE MINISTRY

Being the first pastor there, Guthrie found a great spiritual ignorance in the parish as well as a general neglect of the house of God and the way of salvation. This was particularly manifest in the way that the Sabbath was profaned and family worship neglected. The young minister’s zeal and desire for the salvation of his flock overcame all discouragement in his way and his preaching was sealed with the genuine conversion of many souls. Guthrie was creative in his efforts to get his reluctant parishioners under the sound of the gospel. On one occasion he went into a house in which he knew the occupants did not go to church. In the course of conversation with them he asked the family what they thought of their minister. When he was told that they knew nothing much about him because they never went to church, he invited them to come, promising them money and arranging to meet them there. When they arrived they were greatly surprised to find that the minister himself was the visitor who had invited them. One man in his parish was a keen hunter and preferred his sport to the public worship on the Lord’s day. Guthrie asked him what was his reason for not coming to church? He told him that the Sabbath-day was the most fortunate day in all the week. Guthrie asked him what he could earn by that day’s hunting? He replied that he could make half-a-crown. Guthrie told him if he would go to church on Sabbath, he would give him as much; and by that means got his promise that he would come. After the sermon was over, Guthrie told him that if would come back the next Sabbath-day he would give him the same amount. He did this, and from that time never failed to attend the church. He afterwards became a member of his session.

Like most Covenanting ministers, Guthrie was very diligent in visiting his people, who greatly enjoyed and profited spiritually from his visits. He did not neglect the sick and the dying and was untiring in the work of catechising the young. George Hutcheson, who assisted at one communion season in Fenwick, said that if there was a church full of God’s saints on the face of the earth it was at Fenwick. Samuel Rutherford also held this remarkably transformed congregation in the greatest of esteem. In a letter he writes, “Dear Brother, help me, and get me the help of their prayers who are with you, in whom is my delight”. Matthew Crawford, minister at Eastwood, said that William Guthrie “converted and confirmed many thousand souls, and was esteemed the greatest practical preacher in Scotland”. Another minister records that almost all of the Fenwick congregation “were brought to make a fair profession of godliness, and had the worship of God in their families. And it was well known that many of them were sincere, and not a few of them eminent Christians”.

POWERFUL AND WINSOME PREACHING

We cannot doubt that this transformation was the direct effect of the Holy Spirit powerfully applying the preaching of this servant of God. Once a servant girl attended his church and returned saying that she could not contain all that she had heard, and that she felt as if she would need to hear no more on this side of heaven. The mother of Robert Wodrow, a faithful minister of a succeeding generation, returned similarly with good tidings from Fenwick saying that the first prayer was more than enough for all her trouble without any sermon at all. His preaching was said to be captivating and soaring but for all that, it was acutely practical.

A Glasgow merchant told once of how he was compelled to spend a Sabbath in Arran, and though he did not understand Gaelic, he felt he must attend public worship. If he was apprehensive, however, his heart leapt when he saw William Guthrie enter the pulpit. Though he had heard many famous preachers, he had never seen a congregation under so much soul-concern as he saw that day in Arran. There was scarcely a dry eye in the whole church. A man who was well known as a scandalous sinner was in the church that day and was openly and deeply moved and convicted under that sermon.

A FAITHFUL MINISTRY

Guthrie’s popularity grew and his influence extended throughout the Church, to the Clyde valley, Stirling, and the Lothians. He received many calls, but the only time he left his people was to serve in the Scottish army as chaplain during the Civil War. During this time, and later, Cromwell’s troops were noted for their antagonistic display of their Independent and often Antinomian principles. Services were sometimes disrupted. The soldiers would on occasion come to the front during the sermon and sit in mockery on the penitent’s seat where erring members received church censures. Once, when these troops were in possession of the city of Glasgow, William Guthrie was officiating on a communion Sabbath in Andrew Gray’s church. Several of the English officers planned to boldly assert their view that anyone can come to the Lord’s table. They intended going forward without acquainting the minister, or receiving permission from the kirk session. Guthrie, to whose share it fell to dispense the sacrament at that table, spoke to them when they were leaving their pews, with such gravity, resolution, and zeal, that they were quite confounded and sat down again without occasioning any further disturbance.

In the 1650s the Church of Scotland was divided into two parties – the Resolutioners and the Protesters. Guthrie, together with his cousin James, Samuel Rutherford and John Livingston were in the minority Protesting group. It is a mark of the esteem in which William Guthrie was held that, at the meeting of their Western Synod, in 1654 the Remonstrants chose William Guthrie for their Moderator. It was about this time that he published his famous book, The Christian’s Great Interest

CAST OUT

The Restoration of King Charles II in 1660 witnessed a backlash against the Covenanters and a tyrannical attack upon the spiritual independence of the Church in Scotland. Guthrie was determined to make a bold stand for the ecclesiastical freedom of the courts of the Church, particularly against the imposition of bishops. At a meeting of the Synod of Glasgow and Ayr, in April 1661, he submitted an address to be presented to Parliament. The Synod approved of it as “containing a faithful testimony of the purity of our reformation in worship, doctrine, discipline, and government, in terms equally remarkable for their prudence and their courage”. Two months later his cousin and father in the faith James Guthrie was sentenced to execution. William Guthrie was determined to attend the execution and only the urgent pleas of his session prevented him from a gesture of support so dangerous to his life.

When, along with hundreds of other faithful ministers, Guthrie was finally forced from his pulpit he replied in the meekest of terms to those who were fulfilling the order: “I thank Him for it; yea, I look upon it as a door which God opened to me for preaching this gospel, which neither you nor any man else was able to shut, till it was given you of God”. The 24th of July was fixed as the Sabbath day for enforcing the decree. The people of Fenwick, distressed at losing such a godly minister, observed the preceding Wednesday as a day of humiliation and prayer. Guthrie’s text was Hosea 13:9, “0 Israel, thou hast destroyed thyself”. On the following Sabbath he took up the brighter part of the same text: “But in Me is thine help”. By the end of the sermon tears were in every eye while he directed his flock to the “Fountain of help, when the gospel and ministers were taken from them; and took his leave of them, commending them to this great God, who was able to build them up and help them in the time of their need”.

By 9 am the congregation had dispersed in sorrowful silence. Later, the curate of Calder, with a troop of soldiers behind him gave formal notice of the sentence of suspension and earned for himself a fee of five pounds. He observed the ceremony of preaching the church vacant in the presence of a congregation of soldiers and children. Guthrie received him courteously in the manse, but made it clear that he did not submit to the sentence out of respect to the authority of the bishop who had imposed it.

“Were it not for the reverence I owe to the civil magistrate” he explained, “I would not cease from the exercise of my ministry for all that sentence”. He continued, “I here declare, I think myself called by the Lord to the work of the ministry, and did forsake my nearest relations in the world, and gave up myself to the service of the gospel in this place, having received a unanimous call from this parish, and being tried and ordained by the Presbytery; and I bless the Lord He has given me some success, and a seal of my ministry upon the souls and consciences of not a few that are gone to heaven, and of some that are yet in the way to it”.

Shortly afterwards Guthrie’s physical health collapsed. He suffered a complication of diseases and returned to his native home of Pitforthy never to preach again. On the afternoon of Wednesday, the 10th of October 1665 he was taken into the presence of his Saviour.

MATTHEW VOGAN
Free Church Witness, March 2003

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